Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Graham & Joe & Trev & Carol

Trevor Howard's Brit Lit Films

No, it's not '60s sex comedy - I'm referring to the principles in Turner Classic Movies' recent programming salute to the films of British actor-par-excellence Trevor Howard, who starred in films directed by Carol Reed as well as ones written by or based on the writings of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. The films I watched this night included:

Outcast of the Islands (1952) ****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad

The Third Man (1949) *****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the story by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter (1953) ****
Directed by George More O'Ferall
Based on the novel by Graham Greene

Besides the value of the quartet of notable names mentioned above, there were a number of "two-fers" on offer in this evening's programming: two films directed by Carol Reed (Outcast of the Islands, The Third Man), two set in exotic colonial-era settings (Maylasia in Outcast of the Islands, Sierra Leone in The Heart of the Matter), two back-to-back films starring one-name only actresses (Kerima in Outcast of the Islands and Valli - the moniker Italian actress Alida Valli used in her Hollywood films - in The Third Man), and two written by Graham Greene (The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter). (For the record, Greene collaborated with Carol Reed on three classic films: besides 1949's The Third Man, they worked together on 1948's The Fallen Idol - also starring Trevor Howard - and 1960's Our Man in Havana).

What's in a (full) name?: Valli

Anyway, throughout the night I was struck by the consistent pedigree of Howard's filmography, as he seemingly always appeared in quality pictures, including a number of stellar adaptations of British literary classics (besides Greene and Conrad, let's not forget Trev's turn in the film adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter).

Following are some thoughts on two of the three films that aired this night. I can add nothing about The Third Man that hasn't already been said, so why bother? Like The Maltese Falcon, it's an example of a perfect, flawless film. ('Nuff said!) Besides, I've always been a sucker for those British colonial empire pics - give me a pith helmet and an exotic locale, and I'm in hog heaven (especially if Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene are penning the tale) - so my main interest this night was on Trev's celluloid exploits in Africa and Southeast Asia. It's too bad that both films are currently unavailable domestically on either VHS or DVD.


Outcast of the Islands (1952)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad
Cast: Sir Ralph Richardson (Captain Lingard), Trevor Howard (Peter Willems), Robert Morley (Almayer), Wendy Hiller (Mrs. Almayer), Kerima (Aissa), Annabel Morley (Nina Almayer)

Missed the first half-hour of Outcast of the Islands, but caught the rest of this curio that screened as part of Turner Classic Movie's recent all-night tribute to British actor Trevor Howard. And, as usual, I was drawn into a movie by the compelling face of a beautiful starlet, in this case the mysterious Kerima. Ah, Kerima - a woman so mysterious, she warrants nary an mention in Danny Perry's Cult People. (Speculation: Had she been born in a different era, Kerima could have married Lew Alcindor and the couple could have had the divine-sounding name of Kareem and Kerima Abdul-Jabar. Alas, 'twas not to be.)

Kerima: One word, one love

Though born in Algeria, her exotic looks enabled her to play a number of different nationalities in her brief screen career, including an Egyptian in Land of the Pharoahs (1955), a Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American (1958) and even a "she-wolf" in the Italian horror film La Lupa (1953). Here she plays a mute Malayan "savage" girl, Aissa, the devoted daughter of a blind village chief.

Kerima's temptation eyes

Kerima's temptation eyes captivate Trevor Howard's scalawag colonial trader character Peter Willems to the point of obsession; and who can blame him - I likewise had to put the remote control down when I saw her. Unfortunately for Willems, the attraction soon becomes obsessive.

Savage Love: Trevor Howard goes native

Outcast of the Islands was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1896 novel; though partially filmed at Shepperton Studios in England, the novel was set in Southeast Asia and was partially filmed on location in the Malayas, Borneo and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) - the latter being the birthplace of the film's star Trevor Howard. Conrad described Willems as a "worn-out European living on the reluctant toleration of that settlement in the heart of the forest-land."

Howard as the worn-out Willems, with Carol Reed

Worn-out? All Movie Guide's Hal Erickson described Howard's Willems character more graphically as "a degenerate British expatriate who wanders aimlessly around a Malayan island" and added that the supporting cast of characters wasn't much better. "None of the characters is particularly likable; even Howard loses audience sympathy for his plight by betraying one of his closest friends (Ralph Richardson), a ship's captain who'd raised Howard from boyhood. The unrelenting pessimism of Outcast of the Islands was such that the American distributors felt the need to ease the characters' pain by editing the picture down from 102 minutes to 94."

But for the definitive analysis of this neglected Carol Reed gem, one must turn to the write-up at Britmovie.com:
The success of The Third Man propelled Carol Reed to the peak of his career, making him a director of international importance whose movies accomplished the rare merger of commerce and art; they earned praise from the reviewers and sold plenty of tickets as well. His decision to strike off in a new artistic direction rather than cautiously husbanding the profitable aptitude for thrillers he had displayed was courageous. Weighing up a number of different potential film assignments, he settled on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's second novel, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), a work which Korda - a Conrad enthusiast - had been urging him to film. The endeavour would require a large and convincing cast and a Far Eastern locale, most of the movie was shot on location in the region where the story was actually set: Ceylon, Borneo and the Malayas.

Kerima signs on for the cast of OUTCAST

The plot of Outcast is soundly constructed, yet the story is largely psychological in emphasis, and it is the passions of the characters which determine the events rather than the other way around. The boredom and restlessness from which Willems suffers in Sambir leaves him vulnerable to temptation and, since there is no money to steal, lust replaces greed, insatiable lust for Aissa (Kerima), the beautiful daughter of the blind chieftain Badavi (A. V. Bramble). The girl's tribesmen, allies of Lingard's rival Ali (Dharma Emmanuel), are thus able to blackmail Willems into revealing the treacherous route into Sambir, which the old captain has incautiously shown his young protégé.

Willems: On the Route To Mandalay

From Willems' first sight of the hypnotic Aissa to his final realisation that she is his doom, Reed's camera follows the course of his swelling passion with silent eloquence. Although Kerima has no dialogue, she is all that one could hope for in an Aissa - a dark-eyed beauty who moves about with regal but savage pride and communicates great emotional intensity. As the agent of Willems' downfall, she is completely persuasive. In the case of Almayer, Reed is entirely faithful to Conrad's depiction of the trader as a self-important prig. The epitome of a respectable burgher, Almayer has felt compelled to transport his stuffy bourgeois life all the way to Malaya, with every bit of pietism, hypocrisy and smugness intact. His cosy domestic environment is made to seem airless and numbing, a miniature Kensington inhabited by his well-corseted, tea-bearing wife and his shrill daughter Nina (Annabel Morley, Robert Morley's daughter). The scapegrace Willems is repelled by the pompous proprieties of Almayer's home -having abandoned his own in Singapore - and the rancorous scenes between the two men, which are among the strongest in the movie, leave the audience more sympathetic to the sneering Willems.

Robert Morley as the priggish Almayer

Reed follows Conrad in establishing Almayer's stance towards Willems as one of outraged respectability throughout and in unmasking Almayer as the embodiment of self-interest and heartlessness. His loathing for Willems is fuelled more by anxious fears that Willems may supplant him with Lingard and become a partner than by disgust over Willems' deterioration. Our loyalties gravitate decisively towards Willems when the latter comes to Almayer to beg for a chance to set up his own trading post (presumably as an alternative to betraying Lingard). His physical and emotional condition is pitiable, but Almayer turns him away ruthlessly. When the vengeful Willems returns at the head of the Badavi tribe - following the safe passage into the lagoon - we are not unhappy to see Almayer sewn up in his hammock and swung to and fro over a fire by the sadistic natives.

Kerema and Willems Under the Boardwalk, Native Style

Outcast is easily the least appreciated of Reed's major movies. Yet the Far Eastern milieu is as lush and reverberant as we could possibly have hoped it would be, and the story is almost never vitiated or debased by commercialism. Other than the softening of Lingard, there is not a single artistic compromise of significance in the movie. Beyond its other laudable attributes, it stands as one of the most powerful evocations of human degradation ever to reach an audience through a commercial medium like film. Its moods are all potent because Reed's direction and Wilcox's camerawork are supplemented by Conrad's dialogue, which Fairchild sensibly and skilfully interpolated into his script. By transcribing Conrad's dialogue so faithfully, Reed and Fairchild have also preserved the distinctive rhythms and intonations of each player in the drama.


The Heart of the Matter (1953)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Graham Greene
Cast: Trevor Howard (Harry Scobie), Elizabeth Allan (Louise Scobie), Maria Schell (Helen Rolt), Denholm Elliott (Wilson), Gérard Oury (Yusef), Peter Finch (Father Rank)

Graham Greene's 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter deals with Catholicism, guilt and moral change in its main character, Scobie, a British police officer stationed in Freetown, Sierra Leone who realizes he has more in common with the locals than he has with his boorish fellow ex-pats. It also deals with an extra-marital love affair but, Scobie being a devout Catholic, you know how that will end. Globe trotter Greene - whose penchant for situating his stories in exotic Third World locales led to the coining of the expression "Greeneland" to describe them - drew on his real-life experiences as a British intelligence officer stationed in Sierra Leone during World War II for his novel, which won 1948's James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and was later included in Time Magazine's lists of the "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."

While his nagging wife Elizabeth (Louise Allan) is away in South Africa, Scobie falls in love with widow Helen Rolt (Maria Schell, sister of Austrian actor Maximilian Schell), a sensitive survivor of a U-boat sinking who collects stamps and dons a Jean Seberg haircut decades before A Bout de Souffle.

Maria Schell

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Well, Scobie's "belief" leaves him in a moral no man's land; he can't leave his wife and he can't continue to see the woman he loves and still go to confession as a good Catholic. Hence, Scobie chooses the typically Catholic response of masochistic self-denial. Though it's a sin, Scobie decides to kill himself, risking eternal damnation for himself while "freeing" the women in his life to not be tied down to him. Of course, the "human" response to his moral dilemma - be honest and be with the one you truly love instead of living a lie and honoring God by your loyalty to the marriage oath (one that does not acknowledge that people change and the person you marry is not necessarily the same person later in life), doesn't appeal to the pious penis-punishing policeman. Scobie reluctantly breaks secular law when he accepts a loan from Arab smuggler Yusef (Gerard Oury), but he will not take the bigger risk of breaking spiritual law. It is here that Scobie is meant to come across as a noble martyr, but to me it merely pointed out the smallness of the man in ways all the brow-beating by his status-conscious wife and the constant indignities of his job (in which he is passed-over for advancement by younger and lesser men) never could.

I haven't read nearly enough Greene novels as I should have, but of the ones I've read I've noticed two things:
1) Greene understood love and intimacy as well as any author I've ever read (especially in his brilliant The End of the Affair, a novel that I think I marked up every other page with underlines and highlighting and spoke volumes to me about the failings of my romantic relationships). Some of his observations about love are as eloquent and cogent as anything written by Shakespeare - or Dylan or Hal Hartley, for that matter!


2) Greene was obsessed with Christian - and specifically Catholic - values and the struggle to avoid sin. This is most unfortunate. Perhaps it's related to Greene's alleged bipolar disorder. For he was a renowned womanizer who couldn't enjoy his vices. Strike up another one for the masochistic Church!

While Greene's religious convictions ensure the inevitable outcome of his novel and this faithful film adaptation, it doesn't mean that this isn't a totally enjoyable film. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was shot on location in Sierra Leone. According to TCM film expert Robert Osborne, the film's producer originally wanted to shoot the entire film at England's Shepperton Studios, but Trevor Howard insisted on location shooting. Go Trev!

Critics rightly consider this to be arguably the finest screen performance by Trevor Howard, with some suggesting that no other actor could have come close to portraying the role of Scobie. The Heart of the Matter was nominated for four British Academy Awards (BAFTAS) - including best film and best actor for Howard - and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and boasted a stellar supporting cast that included Denholm Elliott as the snivelingly suave home office spy Wilson and a young Peter Finch as the spiritually disillusioned (but beer-loving!) Father Rank.


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